“About a third of my cases are suffering from no clinically definable neurosis, but from the senselessness and emptiness of their lives. This can be defined as the general neurosis of our times.” -Carl Jung
I thought I knew what depression looked like. It looked like locked rooms and phone calls which were never answered back. An incapacity to socialize, a partner whose love was never enough. Alcoholism. Films of Chantal Akerman. Parents who do not know where did their raising go wrong, therapists who had given up. Calling in sick to work because it was impossible to get up from my bed.Trekking every now and then in search of a home only to feel equally stranded everywhere. Maybe Matt Haig was right in his book Reasons to Stay Alive. “What doesn’t kill you very often makes you weaker. What doesn’t kill you can leave you limping for the rest of your days. What doesn’t kill you can make you scared to leave your house, or even your bedroom, and have you trembling, or mumbling incoherently, or leaning with your head on a window pane, wishing you could return to the time before the thing that didn’t kill you.”
But then I discovered, that there were forms of depression which couldn’t afford taking sick leaves because that would mean missing meals for a day. The depression of some looked like the heads of manual scavengers mysteriously popping out of manholes. Like the bruised eyes of the domestic maid whose partner drinks all her hardwork for his evening peg. Like children living on the street who are raped, trafficked, sold to firecracker industries or coal mines or brothels. Some depressives cannot afford the unfortunate luxury of antidepressants or the intimacy of solitude in an overcrowded chawl or the consolation of great philosophers who have written fat books about the tragedy of living. They don’t know the term for this illness because they do not know why we lost Robin Williams or who he was or if at all this is an illness. They swallow their tears, take the local to work every morning, and quietly endure when the boss vents out his own depression on them. Can a farmer trapped in the vicious cycle of debts and droughts, ever dream of making the choice of “following his passions”? Can a woman born to lower caste parents with no inherited land, ever take higher education for granted, daring to endorse privilege as merit? Is depression just a random alteration of brain chemistry or can it have socio-political causes such that mental illness turns into a culture as much as holocaust or rape or white supremacy. Systemic, subliminal and omnipresent, and a part of a hierarchy of human dignity.
When the prime minister of India first announced lockdown with a four hours notice, everyone was in a frenzy. The rich were busy stocking their refrigerators and storerooms with a supply of months, cribbing about cancelled vacation plans and the anticipated boredom. They were heartbroken since their Instagram influence would face a setback, their stress-busting yoga classes and shopping sprees would be on hold, and working from home would mean having to talk to your partners. Their cars gathered dust. They were pushed into existential angst being clueless about what to watch on Netflix and posted pictures of their latest culinary experiments on their social media profiles, calling the lockdown “a blessing in disguise”. A few miles away from the glass houses and marble floors, thousands of migrant labourers found themselves at the brink of destitution. With no work, there were no wages, and hence, no food. The complete shutdown of public transport would mean no ways to reach the comfort of their native villages and hence, urban abandonment. Some of them kept walking for days, losing their lives to dehydration or exhaustion. Some others managed to find themselves bus seats which would cost them their lifetime savings. While the privileged tackled the monotony and distress of washing dishes, shining the kitchen floor and shifting their kitty parties online, the working class were damned, dejected and forgotten. The lack of social security in a culture where labour unions were dying, hiring and firing for lesser and lesser wages was getting easier, and one craved for jobs not to improve their lifestyles but to merely stay alive, anxiety and worthlessness and hopelessness was not a phase but the only state of mind. This stress wasn’t a result of genetics as much as it’s interaction with extreme environmental factors, a perpetual fear of death. The perennial misery of never having enough. Mark Fisher writes in his book Capitalist Realism about the privatisation of stress, “The current ruling ontology denies any possibility of a social causation of mental illness. The chemico-biologization of mental illness is of course strictly commensurate with its depoliticization. It goes without saying that all mental illnesses are neurologically instantiated, but this says nothing about their causation. If it is true, for instance, that depression is constituted by low serotonin levels, what still needs to be explained is why particular individuals have low levels of serotonin. This requires a social and political explanation; and the task of repoliticizing mental illness is an urgent one if the left wants to challenge capitalist realism.”
This isn’t a depression which can be easily made out by the patient himself using his own insight. It’s difficult to think you could be ill, when everyone around you is also going through the same. This is a pandemic much more prolonged, much less predictable but very much engineered. Human beings are thinking creatures, cognitively too advanced to be spending their entire lives manually mixing cement or carrying rocks or ploughing. And when you are reducing them to mundane labour which they neither can claim ownership on, nor increase their freedom through, you are forcibly strangling their curiousity and creativity. Deducting them to lesser animals, actively decapitating them. The casualness with which, engineers in Bangalore spend hundreds of hours in a year in the traffic, or work overtime for free and forget they could express themselves in ways other than code or powerpoint presentations, it is evident they cannot imagine a life outside this design of labour. The neoliberal design. This is a free market where you sell your souls, this is a competition of how much we can pretend to be a machine. You DONT think, hence you are. Otherwise you are easily replaceable.For a worker today, it’s easier to imagine the end of his life than the end of “work”. He is always expected to be available, with no right to a personal life.
The sixteen year olds vesting their entire will to live on exam results in Kota, the women dieting to “tone” their bodies to align with the contours of their bones in the entertainment industry, little girls who realise they aren’t pretty becuase they are dusky are all part of the neoliberal superstructure. A certain version of commodity fetishism, a redefined celebrity culture which certifies personal validation on the basis of manufactured desire. If your life can be marketed and coveted by others, it has meaning. “The happiness of being envied is glamour”, wrote John Berger in Ways of Seeing. “Being envied is a solitary form of reassurance”. The more impersonal your life is, the greater is the illusion of this power. Capitalism made inequality desirable as well as the reason behind a culture of depression. But this depression was not experienced collectively. It took new forms of atomization and was felt personally. When stable forms of employment were denied to the workers and they were deprived of the solidarity formerly provided by trade unions, workers were forced into competition among themselves which was justified by the idealogy that competition was natural.
“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life”. But the liberty of choosing the work which suits you, isn’t possible in a monopoly where employees are at the expense of employers and not vice versa. Someone is always ready to do the job at a lower salary since employment is synonymous with survival for them. It is only for a minority that work can be considered a pleasurable experience while the majority does the jobs which no one could ever feel love about. Sweeping the dirty roads, cleaning toilets or septic tanks, standing at the doors of malls or in the heat at the traffic signal for hours. Capitalism turns us into time bombs, always measuring days in terms of opportunity cost, making leisure a costly and guilty affair since it means a lot of wages not earned.The desire to take a break is interpreted as a state of passive enjoyment rather than necessary self-care. While the poor’s time became cheaper and cheaper, for the rich, time was the sole resource. In his book How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell writes about the beginning of the workers’ movement in United States for an eight-hour workday. They demanded eight hours of work, eight hours of rest, and eight hours of “what we will” and he was struck by what constituted the category “what we will”: rest, thought, flowers, sunshine.”That campaign was about a demarcation of time. So it’s interesting, and certainly troubling, to understand the decline in labor unions in the last several decades alongside a similar decline in the demarcation of public space. True public spaces, the most obvious examples being parks and libraries, are places for—and thus the spatial underpinnings of—“what we will.” A public, noncommercial space demands nothing from you in order for you to enter, nor for you to stay; the most obvious difference between public space and other spaces is that you don’t have to buy anything, or pretend to want to buy something, to be there.”
In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx argued that human beings find their sense of identity in social relations. This feeling of belonging or “species-being” comes from being a part of a community larger than the individual and finding fulfilment in their labour, which is a primary channel of freely expressing both physically and intellectually. Workers should be able to relate to what they produce, manifest their inner creativity and feel valuable to the system. But labor under capitalism is an alienating experience that divorces individuals from the impact of their labour, trivializes their positions by extracting enormous amount of hardwork but attributing only a fraction of the profit. Marx contended “labour is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his essential being…therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind.” Work is miserable, inhumane and obligatory rather than being a comforting experience. Psychoanalyist Erich Fromm and Linguist Noam Chomsky agree that, the realization of creative needs are essential to being mentally healthy. Having been blessed with reason and imagination, humans cannot exist as passive spectators of their reality. Since workers have no agency under capitalism over what their efforts accomplish, its commonplace for them to feel despondency, a general unhappiness and eventually depression.
Just like Marx believed human beings cannot exist without social relationships and species-being, Erich Fromm emphasized that we are acutely aware of our “aloneness” in the world and consciously/subconsciously attempt to escape the psychological prison of our isolation. However globalization and the need for migration from rural areas to urban and newly built spaces would mean, giving up on your community ties and finding yourself in an alien city where everyone can see each other from their windows but cant connect. The emotional commitments required for friendship and the intellectual efforts needed for conversation are inhibited with the lack of public spaces, artistic communities and long work days.“Loneliness is personal, and it is also political”, writes Olivia Laing in her book The Lonely City. “Loneliness is collective; it is a city. As to how to inhabit it, there are no rules and nor is there any need to feel shame, only to remember that the pursuit of individual happiness does not trump or excuse our obligations to each another.”
Loneliness debilitates mental health, being extrinsic to human nature. Substance dependence, a general lack of trust, prejudices take over. In this loneliness, the lines between majority and minority, “us” and “others” are drawn. It’s easier to discriminate, alienate and hate, than strive against circumstances to socialize, connect and understand. While we are made to believe that Margaret Thatcher and Ayn Rand were right, that there is no such thing as a society and we must act only in self-interest, our instinctive craving for collectivism and community building is constantly at conflict with this imposed philosophy. The philosophy of utilitarianism, of monetizing time by doing productive things than building social relationships deprives us of any cultural value. Competition divides us, makes us feel lonelier, and corporates benefit at the cost of our mental health. “There is a gentrification that is happening to cities, and there is a gentrification that is happening to the emotions too, with a similarly homogenising, whitening, deadening effect” continues Laing. “Amidst the glossiness, of late capitalism, we are fed the notion that all difficult feeling – depression, anxiety, loneliness, rage – are simply a consequence of unsettled chemistry, a problem to be fixed, rather than a response to structural injustice”.
The arrogance of the scientific community when it comes to mental illness is complicit and instrumental in the preservation of this social structure. Science absolves neoliberalism of its crimes, attributing addiction or depression solely to the individual, failing to recognise any circumstancial abetment. Before homosexuality was acknowledged as “natural” or gender dysphoria was accepted as real, conversion therapies were rampant and defended with “scientific arguments”.Even in Nazi Germany, doctors defended human experimentation in the name of science and progress.Science is ever growing and should always be open for amendments rather than turning into a hegemony.
In his essay The Idea of happiness,Ashis Nandy wrote about the emergence of happiness as a quantifiable, autonomous and psychological variable in the global middle class culture. Something that can be engineered or acquired with the right breathing exercises,expensive meditation retreats, rational thinking and individual effort. It is compulsory, as if unhappiness is a disease rather than an aspect of living. The assumption that happiness can be fashioned or attained with prescriptive personal choices, despite hostile environmental factors, would mean a pathological and relentless pursuit of trying to gain control. So we keep comparing our own happiness with those on our social media, and keep purchasing whatever has been fulfilling for them. Since work is tedious and boring, we end up at videogame zones, nightclubs and shopping malls in search of happiness. A hollow anxiety is born when our dissatisfaction with the social structure is endorsed as lack of adaptation and we are told to “pull up the socks”. Varieties of industries open up offering us courses in spoken english,time management, parental management, self-branding and more to make us competent for coping up in this outrageously demanding work culture.Erich Fromm writes in The Sane Society “The danger of the past was that men became slaves. The danger of the future is that men may become robots.” But what if reality is incompatible with human life and depression is an honest response to it? What if the appearance of normalcy is only an attempt of self-deception? “The fact that millions of people share the same vices does not make these vices virtues”, continues Erich Fromm,”the fact that they share so many errors does not make the errors to be truths, and the fact that millions of people share the same form of mental pathology does not make these people sane.”
“In no country in the world, people are sent to gas chambers to die. This is the most inhumane [way] to treat human beings like this”. When Justice Arun Mishra said this in 2019, he wasn’t refering to concentration camps but to the 1.2 million manual scavengers in India. 98% of these are women, mostly unorganised and hence, not covered under laws regarding minimum wages, pensions, maternity leaves or protection from sexual harassment. On rainy days, they wear the same wet saree for weeks and while excrement drips from it incessantly, they go about cleaning latrines and septic tanks, discard placenta post-deliveries, clean railway tracks, exhume dead bodies for Rs. 10-20 for a month. Belonging to castes which are referred to as the “untouchables among the untouchables”, they live a life no better than the labour camps of any dictatorial regime in our knowledge. No promotions, no employment security, lifelong harassment and no option to leave. Can a life devoid of dignity and living conditions, endured with “positive thinking”? Is it possible for these workers to change their “response” to circumstances? Mental disorders are theoretically defined as cognitive distress which impedes day to day functioning of an individual. But does this hold true, even for those who cannot afford impediments in their everyday lives to remain alive?
The popular framing of mental health makes us believe, there are two categories. You are either sane, or insane. There is no concept of a mental “hygiene”: the practice of caring for your mental status every single day.”A study compared written clinical observations made on patients shortly before they committed suicide” writes Kay Redfield Jamison in Night Falls Fast, “with clinical observations made on patients of comparable ages and diagnoses who did not commit suicide. Counterintuitively, those who killed themselves had been assessed by their doctors as calmer and “in better spirits” than those who did not. In fact, nearly one-third of hospitalized psychiatric patients “look normal” to their doctors, family members, or friends in the minutes or hours just before suicide.”
While abortion rights are legal in one part of the world, it’s absence in another can lead to unwanted births and hence, more depressed children and mothers, broken families, and mental illness which isn’t purely biochemical. Sexual abuse, queerness, domestic harassment are all causes of prolonged distress and imminent suicides, which do not originate in the brain but manifest there. Rohith Vemula wrote in his last letter, “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living”. Let’s believe in him and make the world worthy of all the Rohith Vemulas who are yet to come so that none meets the same fate. Let’s believe for once, that there are some problems which can only be solved if we can reimagine the world to be more equal. Because none of us are really free, till all of us are free.
- Reasons to Stay Alive,Matt Haig
- Capitalist Realism,Mark Fisher
- The Sane Society, Erich Fromm
- How To Do Nothing,Jenny Odell
- Ways of Seeing, John Berger
- The Lonely City,Olivia Laing
- Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Karl Marx
- The Noonday Demon, Andrew Solomon
- Night Falls Fast, Kay Redfield Jamison
- Caste Is Not a Rumour, Rohith Vemula
Bijaya Biswal is a doctor and social activist working for LGBTQIA rights in Odisha. Twitter: @bijaya_biswal